First, a disclaimer – I was the CEO of WSROC, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, from 1996 to 2008 and therefore was involved in many of the debates about the proposed second Sydney airport.
In my previous article I looked at some key turning points in the long and complex history of proposals for a second Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek in Western Sydney which led to its seeming demise. This time around I’ll consider some of the factors which may yet bring these plans back to life, as well as some of the proposed airport’s pros and cons.
A recent Sydney Morning Herald article notes that the revival of these proposals is due to two separate issues, but broadly speaking both can be said to relate to capacity. The first is the capacity problem at Sydney Airport itself; a recent study quoted in the SMH claims that the airport will not be able to expand flight movements any further by the end of the decade to meet increasing demand during morning and afternoon peaks. Proposals to lift the hourly cap from 80 to 85 flights would extend this deadline by only a few years.
The second issue is the need to develop employment capacity in Western Sydney. Jobs growth is needed throughout Sydney to match population growth, but the problem is particularly acute in the West where these growth rates are highest. The region also has consistently higher unemployment levels than the rest of Sydney, exacerbated by an under-representation in jobs in the professional, technical and cultural sectors and the decline of the manufacturing sector, traditionally one of Western Sydney’s biggest employers.
A 2011 WSROC study also confirmed that the region’s employment “containment” – the proportion of the region’s workforce that is employed within the region is stuck at around 60%, the same figure WSROC first identified nearly a decade ago. Tens of thousands of jobs will need to be created in the region just to maintain this figure, let alone to contemplate increasing containment.
Transport systems will face an uphill battle moving the remaining 40% of the resident workforce out the region, mainly to jobs in eastern Sydney, as the population grows. Any decline in regional jobs containment would put enormous pressure on these systems. The potential to develop thousands of jobs associated with a new airport in the region is obviously very attractive.
A third factor alluded to in the SMH article is the region’s changing political complexion, with Labor losing control of many Western Sydney councils in what used to be its heartland. While both major parties are currently committed to a no second airport policy, changes in local leadership may lead to a reassessment of policies towards the airport, with WSROC reviewing its position in February.
This is not to say however that the factors which led to the region’s previously strong opposition to the airport have gone away. The most important of these are concerns over aircraft noise. While the airport’s retention on planning instruments has prevented wholesale development close to the proposed site, other suburbs further away that would still be impacted have grown considerably. People have taken the major parties at their word and either moved into these areas or stayed there on the assumption that the airport would never be built.
The second issue is air quality. While this was raised initially in relation to the impact of planes, pollution from increased ground traffic movement associated with an airport may be of greater concern. Airport-related traffic also has the potential to put the rest of the region’s existing road system under increased pressure, leading to increased congestion throughout Western Sydney.
As with all major policy debates, arguments on both sides tend to be oversold and much depends on the implementation. For example, the extent to which a second airport can help relieve the strain on Sydney Airport and make a major contribution to the region’s economy will clearly depend on the size and nature of the airport to be built.
As the University of Western Sydney’s Urban Research Centre Director Phillip O’Neill notes in a quote in the SMH article, the proposed airport will make a sizeable contribution to the region’s jobs growth only if it is integrated with an extensive network of distribution and logistics hubs, convention and entertainment centres and other facilities. This would require a substantial investment in both the airport and the associated infrastructure, which implies a level of coherent urban planning rarely seen in Australia and an airport far larger than the current airport administration may want as a competitor.
Associated with this is the need for a strong commitment to the detailed planning and upfront provision of transport infrastructure. This includes roads but most critically rail infrastructure, though this is one area in which the situation has changed for the better. The current construction of the South West Rail Link as far as Leppington would greatly reduce the potential cost of connecting the airport to the rail network as it can double as the first stage of an airport line. Completing the rail link to Badgerys Creek to be up and running before the airport opened its doors would contribute greatly to managing congestion and air quality issues.
This still leaves the core concern of many residents – aircraft noise. Although planes have become quieter, noise levels may still be unacceptable, especially if Badgerys Creek were to end up specialising in older and nosier planes used to transport freight and/or being operated on a 24-hour basis. Established residents who have made lifestyle choices to live on the rural fringe and close to the airport site based on the promises of the major parties that an airport will never be built may also be deeply unimpressed by any policy reversal, no matter what the regional economic benefits are.
This brings us to the point of looking at alternatives to the airport and what should happen if the airport were to proceed. I’ll consider these issues in my final post on this topic.